Doomsday for football’s philosophers: why it’s bragging rights over style points for today’s bosses
FIFA aren’t the only ones suffering for their commitment to a singular, intractable vision. The purist philosopher on the touchline is also having a really tough time.
Tiki-taka has been dismissed as “extremism” by Barcelona’s own coach. Arsene Wenger increasingly seems to prefer a nice set-piece and a few tackles in midfield over the previously favoured Pythagorean blizzard of passes leading to nowhere. Jürgen Klopp was regularly on the verge of tears last season, frantically Googling the best meditation retreats.
All of a sudden, the pure tactical philosophies suddenly don't seem... well, very effective anymore; their masterminds either grudgingly adapting or clutching at increasingly short straws to justify their wildly gesticulating presence.
Marcelo Bielsa’s miracle at Marseille lasted barely half a season as the early runaway leaders got carried away with themselves and finished fourth. Flip that campaign on its head and there’s Klopp’s Dortmund, scrambling to eventual bare respectability from what looked like a life support scenario. It was enough for him to call it a day. And as for Brendan Rodgers’ Anfield Revolution...
Spare a thought for football’s tactical fashionistas, not knowing where to turn as their darlings are killed off one by one. Spare one also for the football hipster’s enemy – your Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce figure. These fundamentalists of the game have also found it harder to grind out the grudging plaudits they used to. It looks like Neil Warnock has disappeared to his farm for good this time.
Spare a thought for football’s tactical fashionistas; not knowing where to turn as their darlings are killed off one by one
The doyens of Totaalvoetbal and Total Hoofball are probably all about to take six months off to just watch Chelsea play, solidly. Match of the Day’s cameras at the Bridge will be zooming in on Big Sam and Mad Marcelo chowing down on overpriced Balti pies, finding lots of shared areas of interest.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just the circular nature of football’s faddishness. Surely it is no fad if all the quasi-religious tactical trends die at once, replaced by nothing discernible? The sand has shifted, and the purist is left standing on cold concrete. The pragmatists are taking over.
Cash kings rule
Now is the age of the brutally flexible coach, the slippery character who will play absolutely any sort of football to win. Jose Mourinho, essentially. Perhaps having no tactics at all other than the pursuit of victory is a philosophy in itself? Nietzsche could probably go with that.
Being prepared to ‘mix things up’, nominally the description of what recent Arsenal were unprepared to do, has become the anthem of entire seasons’ work
Of course, it’s all down to money. The captains of global industry running top clubs have no time for coherent belief systems; the modern fan increasingly demands their consumer right to constant victory and bragging rights over mates who demand the same of their chosen brand name. At the first sign of a philosophy failing, the fans will revolt; the rich guy’s trigger-finger will itch. For the aspiring coach, it’s probably best to just pretend a belief system has never even crossed your mind.
Safe to say, the whatever-it-takes approach to tactics is sweeping the board fast. Being prepared to ‘mix things up’, nominally the description of what recent Arsenal were unprepared to do, has become the anthem of entire seasons’ work.
Luis, Louis and Pep
Luis Enrique has made Barça more formidable than ever by more rigorously organising the defence in front of a German keeper (who was sometimes Chilean). While the possession stats are still impressive (note the unsuccessful pure stifling philosophies of La Liga’s many also-rans), there’s been a notable tendency to select the ‘lump it to the three lads up top via any means possible’ approach a bit more often. Sure, it’s a beautiful kind of lumping – no one’s suggesting they’re about to bring in Robert Huth to stand boldly beside his compatriot Marc-Andre ter Stegen between the sticks – but lumping is lumping.
Pep’s less pure than he used to be. The fact that folk were shocked when he set up Bayern like his Barça teams of old in the Champions League semi-final only served to illustrate that it’s been a while since he’d been involved in such shameless clarity. Wolfsburg, Bayern’s closest challenger in Germany, based their challenge on Volkswagen cash and little in the way of consistent footballing philosophy. Got a big man up top and a brilliant playmaker? Good to go; the rest will sort itself out.
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A few months in Manchester knocked the purist out of Louis van Gaal. Over the course of a season that didn't exactly go to plan - or plans - he moved from attempting to replicate Holland’s seamless 3-5-2 Total Football 2.0 of the World Cup, to realising that English footballers aren’t used to that arty stuff, to setting up any way that might stop four famous strikers bitching on the training pitch, to whacking it at the head of a lanky Belgian. These were not tactics suited to a man with a quiff, and appropriately, his hair did seem to flatten over the months.
But when Mourinho moans about not getting credit for playing good football in the midst of all his functionality, he’s of course – partly – right. Isn’t he always? This abrupt abandonment of tactical purity is hardly to say that these sides are churning out bilge. In fact, it’s almost impossible to do that with the budgets and immaculately packed squads our anti-philosophers have to work with.
Brand or Bielsa
Those with smaller ambitions, however, have offered idealism a home – which probably explains West Ham’s previous interest in Bielsa. With Swansea frequently opting to hold hands in a rigid structure around their penalty area, a gap has certainly appeared in the market for a ‘New Swansea’; the neutral’s favourite aesthete never actually challenging the Premier League’s principal players.
Unlikely competition for this niche comes from Stoke, who have flipped from brutalism to aestheticism without considering the murky space between. Unfortunately for them, this has yet to result in a rise up the highlights priority list. While fans may have short memories these days, perhaps TV producers are the only ones who still don’t.
Got a big man up top and a brilliant playmaker? Good to go; the rest will sort itself out
You could imagine the West Ham Way has its backers among the broadcast media set – if only for fear of Russell Brand knocking on their door and saying long words at them until submission. They couldn’t get Bielsa in the end but perhaps a more artful ‘Ammers, or Brand himself on board as head coach, could have attracted the displaced tribes of tactical fanboys and girls, and perhaps three-quarters filled their big massive new stadium. But they did land another of the game’s Mr Flexible figures, Slaven Bilic. And what fun they could have.
Lower league panache
Further down the league, Leeds fans shouldn’t be too concerned about Uwe Rösler’s stated desire to emulate the ‘Heavy Metal Football’ of Klopp. The Championship has become a fertile ground for the purist.
Whether it’s Bournemouth or Middlesbrough belligerently making little triangles around the opposition like Poundshop 2012 Spains or Big Mick hoofing Ipswich into the upper reaches with great purity, having a firm principle seems to be a winner where the greatest ambition imaginable is to become glorious Premier League mid-table fodder. Displaced philosopher kings refusing to either adapt, die or look for property in Essex would be welcome here.
You’d imagine the prospect of a big future payoff from the forever-aspirational likes of Liverpool or Spurs might nudge the thinkers to bend their rigid spines just enough to get out of this limbo. But if they don’t, Saturday night, Channel 5 might just become essential viewing.